Kenny Rogers, Country and Pop Legend, Dies at 81

Kenny Rogers
Donn Jones/Invision/AP

Kenny Rogers photographed at The Hot Seat on Sept. 4, 2013 in Nashville, Tenn.

The entertainment world is in mourning today with the passing of Kenny Rogers.

The Houston, Texas native -- who carved out a successful pop/rock career with backing band the First Edition in the late 1960s, before segueing into a leading role as a massively popular country solo star -- passed away from natural causes on Friday night (Mar. 20) at the age of 81, a statement from his PR confirms.

The fourth of eight children to Edward Floyd and Lucille Lois Rogers (born August 21, 1938), the future superstar grew up in the projects of Houston.  One of his favorite ways to escape reality was music. Eddy Arnold was one of his early favorites, but just before he became a teenager, he caught a live performance of Ray Charles. The R&B legend cast a spell on young Rogers, and the die was cast on what direction he wanted to go with his life.

Music dominated Rogers’ attention in high school, as he began to play in a local group called The Scholars. In 1957 -- not yet twenty -- a recording of his entitled “That Crazy Feeling” achieved some local airplay. However, there was no follow-up success, and Rogers began to look for direction in his career. He came to the attention of The Bobby Doyle Trio, a jazz ensemble. Rogers earned a long stay with Doyle playing bass, staying there until 1966.

His next move was to join the folk group The New Christy Minstrels. However, the creative direction that the group was veering toward felt stifling -- and Rogers, along with Mike Settle, Terry Williams, and Thelma Camacho, left the group to form The First Edition. They inked a deal with Reprise, and soon released their first single, “I Found A Reason,” which failed to chart. However, their next record, “Just Dropped In (To See What  Condition My Condition Was In),” climbed all the way to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Subsequent hits to make the chart's top 40 included “But You Know I Love You,” “Something’s Burning,” “Tell It All Brother,” and Mel Tillis’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” which became their other top ten hit on the Hot 100, landing at No. 6. The song also hit No. 39 on the Country Songs chart -– a sign of things to come.

By the early 1970s, the First Edition (now recording as Kenny Rogers & The First Edition) saw their success began to wane a bit. Their final significant chart action came with 1971’s “Someone  Who Cares,” which topped out at No. 4 on Adult Contemporary songs. However, the group continued to perform until the mid-1970s. With several of the group’s recordings having a Country slant, Rogers decided that he would attempt a move to Nashville, where he signed with Larry Butler and United Artists Records in 1975.

His first release for his new label, “Love Lifted Me,” would hit No. 19 on Country Songs in 1975. He would take a cover of Leon Ashley’s “Laura (What’s He Got)” to the same position the next year. By the winter of 1977, he was ready to hit paydirt in a big way. His recording of breakup ballad “Lucille” would top the Country charts -- and hit No. 5 on the Hot 100, pleasing everyone in the country -- except his mother. Granted, Lucille Rogers was pleased for her son’s Country breakthrough, but several thought the song was about her!

“She called me up on the phone one day, and said 'Kenneth Ray, what are you doing?' I knew when she said that I was in trouble. She thought I was putting her business out on the street. She said 'How dare me tell people she had four hungry children.' I told her 'First of all, you have eight kids. Secondly, I didn't write it, and thirdly, it's not about you. Then she tamed down a little bit," he recalled to Billboard with a laugh in 2013.

Once “Lucille” hit, the floodgates swung wide open. For much of the next seven years, much of Rogers’ recorded output hit the top positions on the Country and Pop charts. Among his biggest hits of that period included “Love Or Something Like It,” “The Gambler” (which also served as the basis for a successful movie series for Rogers -- and a very popular Geico commercial in 2014), “She Believes In Me,” and “Lady,” written and produced by Lionel Richie, which became his first Hot 100 No. 1 hit. He also established an award-winning string of duets with Dottie West from 1978-84.

The 1980s saw no slowdown for Rogers -- either as a recording artist or a live performer. His concerts sold out throughout the States, and he added such hits to his resume as “Through The Years,” “Love Will Turn You Around,” and “We’ve Got Tonight,” a Bob Seger cover duet with Sheena Easton that topped Country Songs in the spring of 1983. As big as that hit was, it was another collaboration that made headlines that fall -– as he kicked off a new recording deal with RCA by teaming up with Dolly Parton on the Bee Gees-written “Islands In The Stream,” which hit No. 1 on both Country Songs as well as the Hot 100. The two also teamed up for a Yuletide record, Once Upon A Christmas, in the fall of 1984.

His RCA years included such smashes as “Crazy,” “Morning Desire,” and “Twenty Years Ago,” though by the end of the 80s, a shift to a more traditional Country sound slowed down his success on the airwaves. He still sold records, however. Releases such as 1989’s Something Inside So Strong and 1990’s Christmas In America were both certified gold by the RIAA. He also released several books of his photography, including Kenny Rogers’ America.

The 1990s saw him in the headlines as much for his Kenny Rogers Roasters chicken restaurant chain as for his music, although by the end of the decade, he made an improbable comeback in 1999  with “The Greatest,” which hit Country Songs' top 30 -- his best showing in eight years. The next release (on Dreamcatcher, his own label), “Buy Me A Rose,” would do even better -- climbing all the way to No. 1 to the chart. It would be his first trip to the summit since “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” a duet with Ronnie Milsap, in 1987.

The 2000s would see Rogers continue to record and tour. Highlights in the later years of his career included 2007’s Water & Bridges, 2011’s gospel disc The Love of God, and 2013’s You Can’t Make Old Friends –- which reunited him one last time with Parton on the title track. The latter album was released in the same year that he was inducted as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2015, Rogers announced plans for a final tour, which was titled The Gambler’s Last Deal. The shows were a celebration of his past, complete with film highlights of his long career, which he said made him pause and reflect.

“It’s much more than I ever expected to – and much more than I deserve. It’s really been something to behold for me,” he admitted in 2016. “It’s very hard to put it in perspective and say ‘That was my career,’ because it wasn’t what I set out to do. I was just trying to survive in the business.” He continued to play shows through December 2017, and still had a few on the books in 2018, when health issues forced him from the road.

Rogers is survived by wife Wanda and their two children, as well as three children from his previous marriages. The family is planning on commemorating Rogers' life with a small private service, due to concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and hopes to celebrate in a larger service at a later date to be determined.

This obituary was originally written by longtime Billboard contributor Chuck Dauphin prior to his own passing in 2019.